In a decision that legal experts are calling a first, a federal appeals court has held that a teacher can lead after-school Bible classes in the school where she works.
Barbara Wigg, a 2nd and 3rd grade teacher in the Sioux Falls, S.D., school district, sued last year after school officials told her she could no longer take part in meetings of the Good News Club, which included some of her students. The after-school group is one of nearly 1,750 run in public schools nationwide by Child Evangelism Fellowship, a Christian evangelical organization based in Warrenton, Mo.
By leading a club meeting at the school in the first hour after school, the district argued, Ms. Wigg ran afoul of a policy of the 19,600-student district that barred employees from participating in religious activities on school grounds.
The district argued the policy was needed to avoid the perception of government-endorsed religion, in violation of the U.S. Constitution. But Ms. Wigg countered that the district had violated her First Amendment right to free speech, because she was leading the club on her own time.
A federal district court in Sioux Falls split the difference, saying that Ms. Wigg could take part in Good News Club meetings at other public schools in Sioux Falls, although not at the one where she taught. Both sides appealed portions of the ruling.
In a unanimous ruling on Sept. 3, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, in St. Louis, came down wholly on the teacher’s side. It held that the district must allow her to take part in the meetings, even at her own school.
“Does a school’s concern for avoiding accusations of establishment of religion justify inhibiting the free speech and association rights of employees after work hours when the relevant activity takes place on school property?” the ruling says. “In this case, we do not believe so.”
Tom Hutton, a staff lawyer with the National School Boards Association, last week called the ruling troubling. He said it muddied the waters on an issue already “fraught with legal and political peril for the nation’s schools.”
“One of the relatively few clear and simple guideposts we have in this area of law is the widely understood rule that teachers don’t get involved with students in religious activities on school premises,” he said.
The NSBA filed a friend-of-the-court-brief in the case, which was joined by the American Association of School Administrators as well as the school boards’ associations in Iowa, Minnesota, and South Dakota. The 8th Circuit includes those states, as well as Arkansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and North Dakota.
Meanwhile, the head of a national organization that represented Ms. Wigg hailed the ruling, saying that “public school teachers across America have been waiting with anticipation for this decision.”
“Teachers who desire to take off their official teaching hat and put on a private one, step down the hall after the last bell, and participate in religious clubs have been finally liberated by this court’s decision,” Mathew D. Staver, the president of the Orlando, Fla.-based Liberty Counsel, said in a statement.
A lawyer for the Sioux Falls district said last week that it would ask the full 8th Circuit appeals court to rehear the case.